76ers coach Tony DiLeo just spoke about 90 minutes before tonight's 5:30 p.m. tipoff at Amway Arena: Game 1 of the first-round playoff series between the Sixers and Orlando Magic.
Considering the poor play of his team down the stretch, it seemed an appropriate question to ask DiLeo if he felt sure about which team would show up tonight. DiLeo said that he was sure his team was mentally prepared, and if that things did not go well it would not be because of focus and effort. It might be because they don't make shots, but not because they aren't ready for this game. (Although I tend to think making shots would signal focus, missing them would signal unfocused, but I see DiLeo's point. He guarantees the Sixers are going to play hard.)
We're about 45 minutes from tip-off right now, so here are my Top 3 keys to winning this game.
1.) Samuel Dalembert. I could have "Samuel Dalembert" as No. 1 on my Top 3 keys for every game the Sixers have played all season. But games like tonight's, games against teams with legitimate, big-time centers, his importance, like his height, goes through the roof. If he leaves early with foul trouble, or disappears, or plays 25 minutes or less, I really questions the Sixers ability to win this game. If he's not guarding Dwight Howard, that means the Sixers are throwing a tag-team of Theo Ratliff, Reggie Evans, and maybe Marreese Speights at Howard. I think that's too risky. If the Sixers can, for much of the time, have Dalembert guarding Howard, that will allow them to go 4 on 4 on the perimeter. Given the Sixers struggles guarding penetrate-and-pitch and double-team kick-outs, they need to stay 4 on 4. If they try to guard four Magic players with three guys, this game will look like the first three. Howard is not a great passer, but if he can get it out of the double-team, he'll get it to someone who is.
Second thing, if the Sixers can rely on Dalembert to defend the rim, they won't have to help so much on the penetration of Orlando's quick guards -- Courtney Lee and Rafer Alston. If Evans is the guy defending the rim, they're going to have to rotate and scramble, surely not their specialty.
2. Lou Williams. The Sixers have an advantage off the bench. It's one of the few advantages they have over the Magic, and if they don't take advantage of it, there are few others to exploit. This responsibility falls largely with Williams, who can either spark the Sixers, or leave them hanging -- depending on his play that given night. If he can be electric off the bench, that will be a huge second-quarter boost for the Sixers. One they will probably need. If the Magic bench provides more than the Sixers bench -- uh-oh.
3. The Pick and Roll defense. I know this is a general statement, but watch it carefully tonight. It's been a weak spot for the Sixers all season. Watch exactly what develops after the Orlando player comes off the screen ... can he turn the corner? Does another defender (other than the ballhandler's defender and the screener's defender) have to come over and provide help? If the Sixers can't contain the pick and roll with those two defenders, then a rotation is set in motion. The Sixers have not rotated well all season. And it's not just the ballhandler you need to keep an eye on. If Alston comes off an on ball and draws, say, Willie Green and Reggie Evans to him, then kicks it to the rolling screener, drawing a third Sixers help defender, that puts into play another rotation. It will be impossible to contain, all the time, with just the two defenders, but what's going to be important is the amount of time that third defender has to commit. Is he just showing, for a quick second, before the assigned defender recovers? Or does he have to switch for the rest of the possession because the Sixers are so far behind the play? The pick and roll, especially the ones involving Hedo, are where the Magic create their three-pointers.
Game 1 in a few minutes ...